Trailblazers features biographies of innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania history. A special series to highlight PHMC's 2010 theme, Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common.

Like many women born in the late nineteenth century, Louise Tanner Brown (circa 1883–1954) was educated and trained for cottage industry work, a variety of home-based businesses that included sewing, laundry, cleaning, beauty care, and hairdressing. Cottage industries were especially important in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American factories were booming, creating new needs such as the extraction of natural resources and the transportation of products. Although trained as a hairdresser, Louise Tanner Brown eventually became the proprietor of a highly successful African American trucking firm. This was no small feat for an African American woman born in Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century.

Louise Tanner was born to Nancy and the Reverend Andrew T. Tanner, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Beaver, Beaver County, thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh. She attended elementary and high school in Pittsburgh. Her courses in the arts during high school ignited her lifelong love of poetry. After high school, she became a beautician and operated a beauty shop in Beaver for six years. It remains unclear what took her to the Lackawanna County seat of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania where she married George W. Brown (1856–1923). Prior to her marriage, she had a son, David, who Brown treated as his own child.

George W. Brown was born in Charles County, Maryland, and established his drayage business in 1882 in Scranton, which became George W. Brown Drayman Inc. A drayman is an individual who drives a dray, a low, flatbed wagon with no sides drawn by horses or mules to accommodate the hauling of a variety of goods and equipment and was the forerunner of the moving truck or hauling rig. George Brown’s business continued to flourish long after his demise.

 

In It for the Long Haul

After their marriage, the Browns became an integral part of the community. George Brown was active in civic and religious organizations. In 1899, he and the Reverend Henry C. C. Astwood established a Black newspaper, the Defender, which continued until 1905 when an argument between the two men ended their relationship and the newspaper.

By this time, Brown was an established businessman. In March 1912, the Pittsburgh Courier noted he had a “big business,” identifying his monthly payroll as $3,000. This nod from the Courier was no hollow tribute. The Pittsburgh Courier was the leading Black newspaper in the United States, boasting local and national editions with offices throughout the country. Later that year, in November, the Courier reported that Brown was relocating his company offices to a five-story building on West Lackawanna Avenue, in the city’s business district. Such steady growth helped Brown establish himself not only in the African American community but throughout the region. In 1914, he added trucks to his business, transforming it from a simple hauling business into a regional trucking and transportation leader.

Brown made himself essential in many aspects of life in Scranton. As a member of Bethel AME Church, he served in the Harmony Club and assisted the pastor in the church’s financial matters and fundraising. He was a member of the Knights of Pythias and Oriental Lodge. A vital member of the Scranton community, he died suddenly of heart disease at the age of sixty-seven in 1923. Brown had been in business in Scranton for more than forty years. The Brown Draying Company started with one man, one dray, and one team of horses. Through hard work and determination, it grew to become the George W. Brown Trucking Company with “four motor trucks, two teams, eleven employees and grossing $35,000 in business annually,” according to an article that appeared in Opportunity.

 

A Woman’s Work

Until her husband’s death, Louise Tanner Brown devoted her time to charitable and religious causes. She was an active member of Bethel AME Church, participated in the Woman’s Mite Missionary Society, and served as a Sunday school teacher. In the community, she was a member of the Progressive Recreational and Social Service Association, Community Center for Negroes, and president of the Fidelis Club of the Young Women’s Christian Association. She was a talented public speaker and often recited poetry and gave dramatic readings.

Brown’s death left his widow personally devastated but professionally motivated. Faced with the challenge of selling her husband’s business or running it herself, she did what was to some radical and to others illogical — she kept the business. Advertised as the “largest and most complete warehouse in Eastern Pennsylvania,” Brown Trucking moved furniture and hauled produce and industrial products. One challenge she had not anticipated was that of employee relations.

Brown employed African American and white laborers. After his wife assumed control of the business, the men were hesitant to work with, or for, a Black woman. Brown saw this as an obstacle, not a deal-breaker and realized the solution was equal pay for equal work — and not just equal pay, but competitive compensation.

Organized labor unions began in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, but the movement emphasizing fair wages, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions did not take hold until the early twentieth century. Brown offered union scale wages and equal division of work among all employees, establishing a good working relationship among them. After signing the union agreement, workers knew they could trust her, and their loyalty was unshakeable. This type of equity was Brown’s hallmark and helped her reputation grow. In a 1948 article in Ebony magazine, she said, “In our business we do not know the color of a man’s skin, merely the ability to produce.”

By 1930, Louise Tanner Brown had grown the company to fourteen trucks, twenty-two employees, and $72,000 in gross annual earnings. By 1946, the Brown Trucking Company had eight trucks, eight tractors, ten trailers, thirty-one employees, and grossed more than $150,000 annually. Two years later, Ebony proclaimed the firm as the “biggest” Black trucking company in the industry. Louise Brown secured a contract with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company in three states. The company was transporting 30,000 tons of food and equipment yearly in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, totaling as many as 220,000 miles in one year alone.

Louise Tanner Brown retained control of the company until her death in 1954. She became known and recognized as a capable businesswoman, earning her place as a speaker at the National Negro Business League’s 1926 national convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The company survived for another fourteen years after her death, a symbol of commerce, equality, and perseverance not only in Scranton’s history, but in the Keystone State’s history as well.

 

Rachel L. Jones Williams, a resident of Harrisburg, is a historian, author, and museum professional. A graduate of Elizabethtown College and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies, she has created exhibits for the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Black Heritage Trail and The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. Her articles have appeared in African American National Biography and Pennsylvania Heritage.